Richard E. Grant first read the screenplay for his new movie, The Lesson, while mourning his wife, the vocal coach Joan Washington. "My personal circumstances at the time were that my wife of 38 years had died six months before I got this script," says the actor. Within its pages, he found an opportunity to channel his grief into the character of J.M. Sinclair, a tormented novelist grappling with his own loss. "I thought, 'This is a man whose son has committed suicide, so everyone in this family is in a state of such isolation from the shock of this death,' and that was something I hadn't really done before in a film."
"It was a way for my art to incorporate part of a real-life experience that was so raw at the time for me," Grant adds. "And I thought it could be worthwhile."
The Oscar-nominated actor plays Sinclair as equal parts terrifying and tragic, a narcissist whose endless insults are designed to deflect from his own shortcomings. Both his status in literary circles and his closely guarded secrets are inevitably threatened by the arrival of an aspiring writer (Daryl McCormack), who is hired by Sinclair's wife, Hélène (Julie Delpy), to tutor their surviving son (Stephen McMillan).
Director Alice Troughton, who makes her feature debut with The Lesson, knew immediately that Grant was the right actor to lead her neo-noir thriller. "Richard is a god to me," she tells A.frame. "As soon as I met him, I could tell that Sinclair was a part he was really driven to play. I knew that he understood him, and I think that shows on-screen. He just gets him."
For his part, Grant says that Troughton's enthusiasm to work with him was reciprocal. "It's always a great attraction when you've reached my vintage to work with people who are very hungry and want to prove themselves," he muses. "That excitement is something you can't fake, and as an actor, that's very appealing."
A.frame: In addition to your own personal connection to this character, what initially attracted you to The Lesson? What made you say yes?
Many things. It was going to be shot in Hamburg, which I'd never been to before. And I'm a great admirer of Julie Delpy, Stephen McMillan, and Daryl McCormack, so the chance to get to work with them was part of the appeal. There was also the fact that it was going to be directed by a female director, Alice Troughton, as her first feature film, and the screenplay was Alex MacKeith's first produced script, too. All of these things appealed to me, as did the chance to play somebody who is so apparently self-confident and egocentric as Sinclair.
I don't know if it's a particularly English thing or not to always say 'I'm sorry' before you even speak, but we're always saying things like, 'I'm so sorry, how do you do?' or 'I'm so sorry I'm late' or 'I'm so sorry the weather's bad.' To get to play someone who is unequivocally direct, who says exactly what he feels, and always shows his disdain, or contempt, or joy is an undeniably attractive opportunity. I certainly don't have that level of self-confidence in my own life, so that's really the fun of playing a part like this.
Sinclair is a character with many layers, and most of them aren't exposed until the very end of the film. How did you find your way into his particular headspace?
Well, you always follow the guide. What was interesting here is that, normally on a film that is as intimate as this and is shot on location, the bonding that happens between actors manifests itself every night in moments of socialization. The reverse happened with this film. We were all on vacation in Hamburg, and outside of one dinner where we were introduced to each other by the producer and director, we never socialized. I know that Stephen and Daryl hung out a bit with each other — because their characters have to develop a friendship on-screen — but the rest of us didn't. In a way, the isolation of what these characters are going through in the film was reflected in how we made it. Now, whether we did that instinctively, I have no idea, but that's what happened. The isolation we felt from being in production and being in a foreign country kind of ran perfectly parallel with what was happening in the film's story.
What was your collaboration like with Alice on a day-to-day basis?
I've always worked from the position that I should be told the minimal amount of what's going on at every given moment in a story. That way, the scene has somewhere to go and you get to find moments that you haven't pre-planned or already worked out to a tee. Alice was very open to that, and I was very grateful that she was. There is, for instance, one moment toward the end of the movie when Sinclair is completely exposed and he just breaks down. It's this moment that should be celebratory, and then it turns completely upside down on itself. That wasn't originally how that scene was scripted, but Alice was very open to my suggestion about using Sinclair and Liam's exhaustion in that moment to reveal what's really going on underneath. I was really happy she was open to that, because sometimes directors are too prescriptive about what they want and not particularly open to new ideas. With Alice, it was always a very creatively free space and environment.
Your character has a very set routine. Do you have a specific process or regiment you follow when you're preparing to play a role?
Up until I was 50, I could look at pages of dialogue the night before and I could photographically remember them. Now, because of my age, I have to really learn the script and consciously put aside time so that I know exactly what I'm going to be saying at least a week or two weeks before I'm doing a scene. That way, if they decide to rewrite or change anything, I can do it. But you've got to really know it. If you're really that prepared, that means when you go to do a scene, there's no waste of time or tension thinking, 'I should know this properly...'
I've seen actors who wing it, and it is so time-consuming. And they get so stressed and exhausted, and it has a ripple effect on everybody else. I really think the essence of my job is to know my lines, turn up on time, and get on with it. I'm very practical about it. There's no fussing about whatsoever with me. It's the same thing as writers who know they can't just sit there and wait for the muse. They have to sit down and write, even if it’s bad and they change their mind. You just have to get on it with. There's no waiting.
Sinclair claims that good writers borrow but great writers steal. There's always been talk about how much writers and directors steal from other writers and directors. Do actors steal, too?
What do you think? [Laughs] Yes, and I think some actors may do it by osmosis without even realizing that they're doing it. For instance, I think the first time I ever saw an actor scream without any sound coming from their mouth, it was Al Pacino on the steps in The Godfather Part III. Now, whether Francis Ford Coppola took the sound out or Pacino himself decided not to scream with any sound, I don't know. But I've subsequently seen so many other actors do that. It's never been done as well as it was by Al Pacino, but I've definitely thought, 'I know where that comes from.' And I can see why someone would steal it. When you see somebody do it brilliantly, it's very hard not to think, 'Well, I'll save my voice and they'll put music on it.'
At this stage in your career, what kind of projects or roles are you looking for? Do you have anything you've been searching for, or do you still approach it on a case-by-case basis?
It's always case-by-case, and you always hope that you're not going to be asked to do an exact replica of the thing that you've previously done. The fact that this was coming from a first-time movie director and a writer who had never had a film made before, I knew that the passion they had for the project was going to be much more intense and loaded than it would have been with someone who's been around the block and done it already a few times.
Have you seen anything lately that has really inspired you?
A couple nights ago, I went with Catherine O'Hara and Bo Welch to see Tarantino Live in London, which is kind of a musical pastiche version of all of Tarantino's movies squashed together. It's so out there, and it was definitely inspiring, to say the least.
By Alex Welch